By the spring of 1877, the English light-opera team of W.S. Gilbert and Richard Sullivan had established a strong reputation based on several well-received earlier works, but they had yet to have a true smash hit. That would change on this day in 1878, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore premiered at the Opéra-Comique in London, beginning a near-record run of 571 performances in its original production.
Gilbert and Sullivan began work on HMS Pinafore in early 1878 on the heels of a moderately successful operetta called The Sorcerer. Pinafore would be their fourth professional collaboration after being brought together by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who built a theater and created his own opera company to stage their works. The story of Pinafore concerns a blowhard First Lord of the Admiralty who is thwarted in his attempt to woo and marry the beautiful young daughter of a British Navy ship’s captain due to her love for a lowly enlisted sailor. In typical Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, the plot reveals that the lowly sailor was, in fact, switched at birth with the ship’s captain, and is therefore of sufficient social standing to wed the no-longer-a-captain’s daughter. It was not just the topsy-turvy plot of Pinafore, but also its memorable score of satirical and sentimental songs— including “We sail the ocean blue,” “Now give three cheers,” “When I was a lad,” “He is an Englishman”—that made it so instantly popular with audiences.
Pinafore was not quite so popular with critics, however. The reviewer for The Musical Times sniffed of Pinafore that “[it] confirms us in the opinion…that this firmly cemented union between author and composer is detrimental to the art-progress of either; however, they may succeed in satisfying the temporary taste of an Opéra-Comique audience.” Other critics were far more kind, but it was audiences voting with their feet that turned HMS Pinafore into a smash success in London and an even bigger success in the United States.
Although Gilbert and Sullivan probably failed to profit personally due to rampant piracy of the score and script, Pinafore took America by storm. “Before or since, the American stage has never seen another such success,” wrote H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun more than 30 years after Pinafore‘s London debut on this day in 1878. “The wheezes of the libretto passed into the common speech; the music was upon the air of the country from dawn to dawn. At one time, it is said, no fewer than 160 performances were given in one night—by pretentious companies of good singers, by companies of children, by troupes of amateurs.” Although its popularity may have waned over time, even the cartoon character Sideshow Bob, mortal enemy of young Bart Simpson, has had his way with Pinafore, in the memorable “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons.